By Alexa Salamé
“Don’t think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it’s good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art.” – Andy Warhol
I thought I knew what I was signing up for when I made the decision that I would spend a year working alone. I was excited by the prospect of following my stream of consciousness, of being free to pursue whatever sparked my interest at any given moment. But it was not until that first day, stepping into the white studio for my first solo session that I actually felt it: no one would be watching me.
Looking back, it feels like almost every hour of my first 24 years of life I’d had someone with me; a friend, a stranger, a family member, a teacher, a boyfriend, a roommate, the family dog. I’d hardly ever been actually, meaningfully alone. Certainly there are private moments in one’s life, but in that first couple of minutes looking around a familiar, empty space, I knew that this was an unprecedented moment for me. I’d come in to work that day with a whole plan, a list of exercises I was going to do, but they’d all flown from my head and I suddenly found myself stuck, unsure of how to proceed.
Throughout my education and even through the beginning of my professional life, I’ve never worked on something that I did not have to show to anybody. I’ve worked on material that I ultimately abandoned without presenting it, but it was always because the original idea evolved into something more exciting or more honest and that I was more interested in showing to my peers, a teacher, or an audience. But here I was, staring down the barrel of a whole year wherein I could start and abandon any number of projects without anyone ever knowing what I was working on in the first place.
I had thought about this idea academically of course, and on paper it was thrilling; for 12 whole months I could make anything I wanted at any pace that suited me and no one would be there to judge it or rush it or correct it. I could truly follow my natural, unfiltered impulses. I could be free. And so it was with great enthusiasm that I walked into the studio that first day. But as I started to move about the space, that enthusiasm quickly morphed into something crippling. For 12 whole months there would be no one in the room asking me questions or suggesting changes. There were no deadlines. There was no quota to fill. There would be no collaborator or objective audience ready with a point of view that I’d not thought of. I was alone with my own perspective. What the hell was I going to do?
“The advice I like to give young artists, or really anybody who'll listen to me, is not to wait around for inspiration. Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself. Things occur to you. If you're sitting around trying to dream up a great art idea, you can sit there a long time before anything happens. But if you just get to work, something will occur to you and something else will occur to you and something else that you reject will push you in another direction. Inspiration is absolutely unnecessary and somehow deceptive. You feel like you need this great idea before you can get down to work, and I find that's almost never the case.” ― Chuck Close
I encountered this piece of advice long before I was ready to take it. Faced with the option to do anything I wanted, I found myself becoming almost unbearably nervous. My mind would be racing so fast, so far away from my body that at times I’d feel unable to move. My rational mind knows that at any point over the last 6 months I could have invited people into my work; had I looked for them, I probably could have found those collaborators and audiences that I felt so hungry for when I got into the space and tried to begin something, anything. But I didn’t. I didn’t want to. I just kept wracking my brain looking for something that felt like “the thing” I was supposed to be using this time for. I needed a good reason to justify continuing to ignore an obvious solution to my problem. And one stupid reason kept coming up: I felt like this great idea was just out of reach and until I was able to grasp it, I wouldn’t have anything worth showing anyone.
The idea that I had when I decided to spend a year working alone was that I would make discoveries about my work, my process, that I would cycle through different ideas, try, fail, try something else, and emerge with something like a portfolio of choreographic work. I thought that I’d create all these little seeds of pieces that I could take back into the world and nurture and grow them into full productions. But when it came to the actuality of my work sessions, I felt like I was spending hours just banging my head against a wall. As I sit in my apartment writing this, I know that I have been doing exactly what I intended to do with my time in the studio; I have teased out several little starts to pieces that I think I could pursue further, I have tried and failed to execute many things that I dreamed up outside of studio, and I have made at least one important discovery about my work: it is exceptionally difficult for me to work alone. Without some outside eye, I lose confidence, and without confidence in my own work, I start to feel like I need some great, grand, artistic idea, some divine inspiration in order to make something that I can be proud of. The biggest thing that stops me from working is me.
My rational mind knows that one way to solve this confidence problem would be to just invite some people I trust into my work space and get some criticism, some encouragement, some form of validation that I’m at least trying something worthwhile. But I’m competitive. And I’m curious. And I want to see what will happen if I do not give in to this impulse. And so I try coming up with arbitrary rules and limitations to place upon myself just so I’ll have something to work against, something to distract me from myself. If I can just push through this nervous feeling, will I be able to make work that I am satisfied with in a vacuum? Will I rise to meet a challenge that I set for myself, even if it’s arbitrary, even if I know that if I just drop it no one would ever even know or care? Will I rise to my own occasion?
Naming the “problem” has certainly made it easier to grapple with. And some days it is much easier than others to just come in to work and feel at the end of my session that I have done well. It is an old and tired saying that each of us is our own worst critic. It is for this reason that working alone has been one of the greatest challenges I’ve had to deal with in my artistic career. And maybe after this year is up, I’ll never work alone again. But I cannot let fearfulness outweigh my passion. And so I push on, even when it feels bad, even when I’m not sure that it’s any good. I have to just make something. Anything will do.